One moment, Greenbrier East was poised for perhaps the biggest knockout punch of the Class AAAA regionals. The unheralded Spartans looked to be within two points of No. 2-ranked George Washington late in the game and riding a wave of emotion.
Then seemingly in the very next moment, GW pulled an escape. That Houdini act allowed the Patriots to slip away to the Charleston Coliseum yet again for another trip to the state tournament.
Alex Yoakum started out smoking and finished with 30 points Wednesday night as GW made off with a 73-58 victory over the Spartans in the Region 3 co-finals at GW High School. It’s the fifth straight time the Patriots have qualified for the state tournament.
George Washington (14-1) was given the No. 2 seed for the Class AAAA event and faces No. 7 seed Jefferson at 1 p.m. next Thursday in the quarterfinals.
“It never gets old,’’ said GW coach Rick Greene. “It’s literally an honor to walk onto the Civic Center floor in the state tournament. As a player, I was fortunate enough to play in two of them, and I’ve coached in a couple.’’
The Spartans (10-4) trailed at halftime 36-29, but rallied back into the lead in the third quarter and the game went back and forth for a while, with six lead changes late in that period. The key moment then came with 5:37 left in the fourth period.
With GW up 52-48, East’s Bailee Coles flew into the foul lane on a drive and banked home a shot that appeared to bring his team within two points, but was called for charging, his fourth foul, negating the bucket. That completely flipped the momentum.
Over the next 96 seconds, George Washington went on a quick 9-0 run that bumped the lead to 61-48 with 4:01 to go. Taran Fitzpatrick started the blitz with a stickback of his own missed shot, Yoakum grabbed a defensive rebound and raced upfloor for a 3, John Goetz took a feed from Mason Pinkett for a layup and Yoakum converted both ends of a 1-and-1.
After that, Greenbrier East was never again within 10 points.
“I think we played well as a team during that spurt,’’ Greene said. “I don’t know that anybody did anything spectacular, but I thought we just trusted each other and played very well. We started sharing the ball against their pressure and not dribble so much.
“Then I think we just stepped up defensively and maybe make them take it a little further out, or not so much let them stay in their rhythm.’’
Spartans coach Bimbo Coles, father of Bailee Coles, agreed that the charging call was crucial, but that’s about all he agreed with.
“It was definitely deflating,’’ Bimbo Coles said. “That was the turning point of the game for us, and it wasn’t a charge. You go back and look and he came to a jump stop and went straight up and the kid was falling back. Unfortunately, it was called and it was a big momentum swing.
“You can’t take anything away from GW, but that was the big turning point in the game when it should have been a straight no call. We had momentum, we were playing well, they were playing well. It would have been a better basketball game. But that definitely changed everything.’’
The Patriots weren’t about to give the lead back after that. They made 13 of 16 free throws in the fourth quarter to protect their advantage. Jayson Monday was 4 of 4 at the line in the last minute, capping a 13-point effort off the bench for GW.
Ben Nicol had a pair of 3-pointers and added 10 points for the Patriots. Pinkett went scoreless in the first half but scored nine in the second half and Fitzpatrick grabbed nine rebounds to pace GW to a 46-28 edge off the boards.
Yoakum drained his first three 3-point tries and had 11 points in the opening quarter for GW.
“Alex got us going, and kept us in it,’’ Greene said.
For the Spartans, William Gabbert scored 22 points, Bailee Coles 14 and Tucker Via 10. Gabbert played his first three seasons of varsity ball at GW before his family moved to Greenbrier County in the offseason. Adam Seams led East with seven rebounds.
Pinkett, a returning first-team All-Stater, was glad to get another shot at the state tournament after COVID-19 canceled last year’s event.
“We’re excited to get back to the Civic Center,’’ Pinkett said, “and get to show the state what we can do, and try to make another run and get another one.’’
Bimbo Coles was left to lament how his team’s season ended, including last week’s sectional finals loss to Woodrow Wilson when eight of his players (one starter and several subs) couldn’t play due to COVID protocol.
“This team’s been through adversity all season long,’’ he said. “We were on COVID quarantine three times and our eight guys didn’t play against Beckley. They played [Wednesday] but they hadn’t played a game in three weeks. Not making excuses, but this team is mentally strong and has come a long way this year.
“Just so many things kind of threw a monkey wrench in our plans. But our kids played strong and gave us every ounce of energy and competed at a high level.’’